mirage, some thoughts from a Victorian gentleman

Walking home yesterday I found a pile of books and magazines on the sidewalk. Old Architectural Digests and paperback thrillers mostly, but also one really weird-neat thing. As far as I can tell it's a self-published journal written by one James Charles Simpton, about whom the internet tells me absolutely nothing. The book runs from 1860 to 1874, sometimes entries happen daily (or almost) and sometimes, mainly near the end, there are huge gaps (hello June 1872 to January 1874).

He never mentions working but seems to have money that he spends mainly on religious icons and statuary, illegal pornography, and food. A lot of it is vague and I sometimes wish he had more specific things to say. About this Elizabeth Morris woman specifically, rather than just writing more shit poetry about her ashen face and blood red cheeks. Woo woo, racy!

It's neat mostly because it's there, a person from a different era complaining about stuff (train was late, winter turnips are the worst, etc.), and I guess in that way we can draw some blog parallels.

HOWEVER, there are parts where he does more thinking, his take on religion being a good example. To Mr. Simpton Christianity is number one and Catholicism number one within Christianity, although at the same time he considers defending a specific religion as the "one true" anything to be beyond practicality. He likes Catholicism best and everyone else is free to dance beneath a full moon at their leisure. Fair enough I say, a reasoned personal argument on his faith and the belief structure he takes most solace from. BUT THEN he footnotes a few suggested changes to the traditional Latin mass; everything looks largely the same - church, robes, incense, chanting and whatnot - but instead of everyone listening passively, the service is more like an elaborate orgy pantomime (fair enough) with only very brief and seemingly unsatisfying sexual contact. What's the point of that bud?

I don't know if he ever figured out what is obviously a complex relationship with his faith, but in the book's final entry, and the apparent end to his diarist career, he expresses some very specific feelings about the economy (SPOILER ALERT: he isn't super positive). I've typed out Simpton's thoughts around what he saw emerging from the thick smog of a nascent industrial London. I'll let his words stand alone, and leave it to you to decide how exactly one goes about having dreams like the one he describes near the end!


January 23rd, 1874

On St. Helen's day past I was the proud recipient of C. Dickens' book The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit but have only just now finished reading it. Rather, re-reading it, as it passed before me two decades previous. Reading this time I was struck by a shockingly clever, but inevitably hopeless, scandalous ruse executed by one of the characters, a Montague Tigg. The purpose behind the plan is to become exceedingly wealthy and to explain it I will generalize away from the book's particular example. To become rich in this fashion one must first establish a club or a fund where members are offered returns from some ephemeral, and often unspecified, investment, preferably one that sounds very exciting but is also very difficult to confirm as an actual thing. Investing in an imagined gold mine on an obscure and far off island is an ideal example. The gold mine does not exist and therefore any profits used to demonstrate the project's viability must come from somewhere else, namely an ever greater number of new investors.

The system seems to work and can provide handsome profits for those looking to make withdrawals so long as new gullible entrants can be found to contribute their monies. If no one new can be found, or the new wealth does not match withdrawals, the entire scheme fails. It should also be noted that whatever group or individual initiated the scheme is most likely taking their pound of flesh the whole time as well. Oh wealth!

The whole thing is of course highly corrupt and morally bankrupt, but hardly a new idea. As preposterous as it might sound, a similar system was used to prop-up the mighty Roman Empire long after it should have died, succumbing to its over-reach, resource depletion and a Sybaritic lifestyle amongst its ruling class. In the Roman case, however, the noble offer of citizenship was extended rather than the crass gleam of gold. Of course with the advantages citizenship provided around taxation, access to markets and mobility a promise of increased wealth was implicit in the offer. Oh wealth! Its promise is enough to encourage obeyance and render barbarian and Imperial interests as one.

It is revealing that an Empire grown too big, unable to sustain its borders and economic networks, thought growing those selfsame networks and borders, increasing its population and bureaucratic apparatus, would solve its problems. People are blinded by greed, and in this situation those in charge ignored that the behemoth they sat upon had long ago ceased its rattling and wheezing death throes. Unable to grasp reality they tried to grow through a difficult spell, but their system only worked so long as their were more people willing to join. Once conquest became too difficult, or the newly conquered recognized it was an animated corpse they had been subsumed by, there was no interest in contributing sweat and gold to imperial coffers. Citizenship means nothing when the nation supposedly granting it relevance is but a miasmatic fog.

People realized they were better offer pillaging the Empire rather than joining it, and in that respect they were doing what the emperors, senators and equestrians had been doing for centuries. One group used swords and flame, while the other used laws, bureaucracy and tax collectors.

Given the eventual results, the leaders of Empire might have been better to share their wealth,
but they were blinded, not by greed as some might suggest, but by the fear that in sharing what they had amassed they might lose their vaunted status and moneys. Living a life of opulence and excess disguises what life for the lower strata of society is really like. It provides ample opportunity to misapprehend the life of work and getting-by led by many, creating instead a terrifying imagined reality where life is dirt cake and urine for wine. Although centuries before Malthus these people must have grasped what he put to paper, namely that there is only so much to be shared and if you get more then certainly I must expect less.

I write at length about the Roman Empire because it is highly illustrative of humanity's abilities at self-deception and delusion, particularly when greed has taken hold. A man stands in the market collecting gold and silver from his fellows and as a wall behind him begins to crumble he does not move to safety, so focused is he on money, only perhaps commenting on the strange clouds that have appeared to make his counting more difficult.

I wonder if we can ever learn from our history and build a better future. Today the actions of those who rally and struggle for the rights of workers, demanding equitable distribution of wealth, might present some promise. But even now I look at this nascent movement and have my doubts. As leaders come to the fore won't they inevitably demand a greater share of what is produced so they can insure the system, under their bold leadership, will continue to function smoothly? Are there truly pure people in the world who are immune to wealth, or more realistically the comforts and satisfactions that wealth can so readily provide?

In my idle more than once I have dreamt future nations into being where many peoples led themselves into communal, cooperative perfection. Even in my dreams though, as the nation strove to greater wealth those who had once led as equals became more thoroughly entrenched and controlling of political, military and economic spheres. From outward appearances it seemed they had learnt from the past and were willing to share their nation's riches with all their fellows, but in the end it was a mirage. The mirage wavered but broke as people multiplied and resources dwindled, it could no longer hide the few who held true wealth and power. To stave off the inevitable, instead of citizenship money appeared, shuffled and created from thin air. Just as good as the old money, better, they said, but newer and there's more of it. Apparent benevolence and distributive largess told people they had a chance for their own wealth, a home, but the gift was instead a final frenzied orgy of distraction. Accumulation for those who could grasp the strongest, knew what they were seeking and what held true value.

To bait with a home is a dangerous ploy for in the home one finds a wattle-and-daub, brick or wood womb of a person's dreams. To snatch it away destroys a man leaving him worse than if he'd been homeless his whole life, the lost home becoming a tomb where hope and your future lie dead and only the screams of nightmares dance. And so the dream ends, a nation of people no longer willing to sign on to the moneymaking schemes put forth by their leaders, ready to turn their energies, as we saw with Rome, to more destructive ends.

Thankfully I am a light sleeper and have never seen to the end.

I don't know if Mr. Dickens imagined such darkness when he was writing his pretty little book, but one's mind can wander on these rainswept nights and dreams can leave a man fearful for humanity's future.

Oh wealth!